Here is a very simple fact: Watches are physical objects, with physical components that are affected by the physical world. Once you understand and accept that, you have grasped the essential difference between a good idea and a good watch.
What makes a timekeeper a timekeeper? What makes a watch more than an amalgamation of wheels and gears, trapped in a metal box, spinning in an unruly cacophony of movement? It is the oscillator, the marriage of wheel and spiral constituting a mechanical system that, when excited, is calibrated to vibrate at precise intervals of a fractured second.
But we live in a physical world, which affects the physical components within our physical watches. In a theoretical environment with constant atmospheric pressure, constant humidity, constant ambient magnetism, constant temperature — or as I sometimes like to postulate, in a sous-vide machine located in deep space — a perfectly regulated balance under perpetual constant force can be relied upon to oscillate at the exact frequency as advertised for the rest of eternity. (Or for as long as Arsenal keep refusing to spend money building a stronger defence — whichever takes longer.)
Oscillators perform differently in different environments, and that’s all there is to it. Re-regulating the balance in one’s watch would involve the procurement of a highly trained watchmaker and a bunch of electronic equipment not readily found in the modern home (unless you happen to be MacGyver and can probably put one together using two paperclips, a laser pointer and some toothpaste). Until now, that is.
The term “smart watch” is a pretty nebulous one at the moment, no one really knows what makes a watch smart; however I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if any horological construct deserves the appellation, it’s URWERK’s EMC movement, which they are in the process of perfecting in their workshops.
Here’s what happens with the URWERK EMC. (By the way, I love the fact that the name is an entirely uppercase affair, as it gives the fully accurate impression that what it conveys is VERY IMPORTANT.)
You have a mechanical oscillator that is set to beat at 4Hz (28,800vph), a setting which has been input by watchmakers in a Swiss workshop. Let’s say you decide to relocate to somewhere a lot more humid, a lot hotter, and pretty much at sea level — such as the modern tropical paradise known as Singapore. The timekeeping capabilities of your watch will change accordingly. This won’t do.
So you turn a little crank on the side of the watch a bunch of times, a crank which is hooked up to a micro-generator, which in turn charges a capacitor. This capacitor provides a short burst of energy to an optical sensor (hovering over the balance), an electronic oscillator vibrating at 16,000,000Hz, and a calculator. The optical sensor reads the motion of the balance over approximately 3s, takes an average timing per semi-oscillation and transmits this information to the calculator.
The calculator compares the optical reading of the mechanical oscillator against a reading of the electronic oscillator and figures out, in units of 10 microseconds, how far off the balance is from attaining the perfect rate of 0.125s per semi-oscillation. This result is then translated into a differential reading in units of seconds per day and displayed on a dial for your learned perusal.
You may then, with the aid of a fine-adjustment screw accessible on the back of the watch, personally recalibrate your watch to a more precise rate. Finally, give yourself a big thumbs up and a nice pat on the back. (Optional: Have a trusted friend on hand to punch you in the arm, because no one likes a self-satisfied smart-ass.)
Here’s what the URWERK EMC (say it out loud!) could possibly mean:
- An end to the continual (and frankly, pretty annoying) griping about how mechanical watches don’t keep good time
- The abrupt functional redundancy of all other mechanical attempts at achieving true timekeeping accuracy (fast-beat escapements, constant-force mechanisms, exotic escapements, tourbillons, etc), because you don’t need to keep chasing after a perfect oscillator (impossible goal); all you need is a practical means to keep compensating for the imperfect one you have
- The first movement to successfully integrate technology into a mechanical movement that allows the wearer to meaningfully interact with the watch, looping the exchange of information and creating a deeply symbiotic relationship between man and machine
I’m going to draw your attention back to my second bulleted point above, which refers to the functional redundancy of other horological mechanisms aimed at achieving timing accuracy. The significant word in that sentence is “functional”, as I’m convinced we still have plenty of philosophical and creative ground left to cover in the areas I mentioned (fast-beat escapements and all the rest of it). The tourbillon, for example, burned through its functional cachet pretty much as soon as the wristwatch became the prevailing form of timepiece, but we still see incredible, amazing variations of this rotating escapement being developed and premiered.
When I was first introduced to the URWERK EMC (preach it, sister!) at Baselworld 2013, I was psyched to the max. REVOLUTION founder and group editorial director Wei Koh had been given a preview of it in January and his enthusiasm was infectious. I was hustled into the back office at the URWERK booth, where the different components of the URWERK EMC (ph33r m3!!) were spread out on a table with Felix Baumgartner in the midst of conducting a demonstration. I don’t quite know how they’re planning to fit all that stuff into a wristwatch, but I can tell you I’m most definitely getting in line to see how the final product turns out.
You should too, you know.